The Evolution of Religion: Toward Religious Pluralism: Part 3

Jeremy Sig

Part I: Brief History of Religions Part II: Definitions Part III: A way forward

Part 3: A Way Forward

relativism-cartoonIn the first two posts of this series, I attempted to lay out a broad history and nuanced position toward the issues surrounding religious pluralism today. As has been pointed out many times before, such work is inherently arbitrary in that it seeks to limit such a broad position. None the less, I attempted this feat with one purpose in mind. My goal has been to show, as the title of my series relays, the evolution of religion. At this point, however, I feel the need, for humility’s sake, to take a step back.

In this final post of the series, I want to lay out a pragmatic approach for mankind in relation to the plurality of religion in our world today. This approach will be centered around the fostering of humility and relationship. This post will not be so focused on definitions or broad generalizations, as my first two. Concurrently, this post will be shorter than my previous two. I would like the reader to see my first two posts, as simply a doorway to step into the topic which I will attempt to breach in this post. For sure, there are many doorways one could travel through to reach this position. Some of which may be more effective than the one I have presented. I simply laid forth, as best I could, the path for which I took.

To say that religion is an ever evolving entity is by nature quite abstract and convoluted. The very term “evolution” carries with it much baggage that is inapplicable to the intent of my thesis. When one speaks of the evolution of religion, it must be understood what can and cannot be inferred in any authoritative way. First it must be fleshed out that the evolution for which I speak is in revelation of the uncontainable, not in any cultural or institutional sense. My goal is not to speak to the evolving of religious institutions, as such a task would be far beyond my abilities. Rather, it is to acknowledge the evolution of personal revelation within those who seek to understand and relate to transcendence. To be more clear, my goal is to acknowledge that mankind has always sought to better understand and relate to a God that is far beyond his reach. As such that God has continually given mankind glimpses of himself through divine sparks of revelation. It is only obvious then, that as the sum of those revelations grows, so too does the understanding man.

At this point I would like to dwell for a moment on our understanding of God. It is agreed on, in some form, by every religious tradition, that the divine experiences for which man has touched have originated from a source far above the grasp of mans conception. To put it more bluntly, every religious tradition affirms that we know very little of the infinitude that is God. In fact, I would go as far as to say that an inherent aspect of religious experience is an understanding of how minute the picture or revelation received really is. It has been said that an experience of the divine is like a drop of water in the desert. It is only meant to stir ones thirst for more. Concurrently, an experience of such, from such an undefinable source, can only itself remain undefinable. None the less, it is man’s nature to try.

This is where religion, in its institutional form, comes into play. The institution of religion places a linguistic framework around the experience to help man to define what has happened. It must be noted that this is not a negative function, but rather a necessity. Without a definition, in linguistic terms, it is quite impossible for man to form a relationship to the source of the experience. It must also be noted that religious experience is not an ever present reality. Each drop of experience relates more “truth” and must sustain the individual whom experienced it. It is the time between these experiences that one is compelled to plumb the depths of the revelation given.

The linguistic traditions, supplied by the religious institutions of man, aid the individual in their search for understanding and relationship. This distinction between religious experience and religious institutions is important. It is quite possible to make value judgments of the language for which the various religious institutions construct. Each linguistic tradition is formulated from the combined experiences of a localized group. As such, there are inherent strengths and weaknesses to each tradition. This is not to say that it is a simple task to evaluate the linguistic constructs of any religious institution. Any attempt to do so would require an in depth understanding of the people and culture for which each tradition is grounded. This is why, in my opinion, evaluation of these traditions is best left to be done from within, though there is certainly value in outside perspective.

This evaluation, however, must stop at the institutional level. To attempt to evaluate the personal religious experience of another is quite a different task. Such a task is dangerous, arrogant, and highly unproductive. It must always be remembered that the source of these experiences is far beyond the grasp of our intellectual understanding. What does this mean in a practical sense? It means that one can evaluate, for instance, the religious tradition that interpreted a divine experience as a call to violence. Via the constructs of human reasoning one can determine that such an interpretation must be an inferior linguistic traditional construct. One cannot, however, presume that the human beings that followed such a construct have received an inferior religious experience.

One might argue that this is only a semantic difference. This, however, is not the case. The pragmatic value in making this distinction is the continued realization of the inherent human vulnerability of ones own religious linguistic tradition. This is vital in the pluralistic world for which we live. It is only through humility that one can truly grasp the most of the divine.

This leads me to my final point. Religious scholar Diana Eck has said,

“Whoever knows only one religion is unlikely to understand what religion is about”

While I cannot speak to the entirety of her point, I do feel that she has tapped into an important practical aspect of religious pluralism. If the source of all human religious experience is far greater than the comprehension of mankind, then it only follows that the combined revelations of mankind holistically, paints a fuller picture than when seen through a dichotomy. In other words, we can only gain in our quest to understand and relate to the divine by seeking out and learning from the experiences of others who have touched its essence (I apologize for the constant vacillation of terms in relation to God. It is often difficult when speaking on this matter to confidently choose only one term.). If it is truly ones desire to understand and relate more fully to God, then it seems only natural to seek out others who are like-minded. I understand that this can sometimes be a tricky proposition. Each experience is couched in a religious linguistic tradition, and often those traditions are mutually exclusive. There is, however, a way to sort through the peculiars of each tradition and find the essence of revelation.

The way for this clarity to be found is through relationship. It is only when we commune with others, and our hearts become one, that we can find the essence of the revelation for which they have received. We will of course interpret that revelation through our own tradition, but we will have gained in our understanding of the one who is beyond comprehension.

This post, in many ways, has taken a step back from the ambitious generalizations of my previous ones. As I laid out previously, this was intentional. I have tried to avoid making value judgements on religious traditions. This is not to say that there is no value in doing so. I feel, however, that this is best left to others far more qualified than myself.

As I have taken this journey, being enriched by the experiences of others both within and outside of my tradition, I have often reevaluated the linguistic tradition that I have used to define experiences of God. This I believe is a natural outcome of gaining a further understanding of the God in whom I seek. Sometimes I have found it more difficult than others to understand the heart of religious experience. Specifically, a Buddhist friend comes to mind. It seems the linguistic mountain between us was larger than most. However, I have never been disappointed by the outcome no matter how difficult the journey. Each and every relationship has added a drop to my now ever growing lake of understanding of God. With each drop I am encouraged by the level of intimacy gained, while also humbled at the sheer depth of the impending ocean. My hope is that in sharing the journey that has brought me to where I am today I have better illuminated a path for others who wish to follow. I truly believe in the relevancy of my position for today. At no other time in history has such a great wealth of opportunity for cross religious investigation been prevelant. Because of the modern tools of information sharing, it is easier than ever to gain perspective from other’s experiences. This is not to dismiss the potential risk involved in such excursions, but rather to highlight the possibilities of growth.

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17 Comments

  1. I think you are good to admit the possible risks of growing in one’s understanding of other religious traditions, but let’s be honest, there’s just as much potential danger becoming a die-hard, fundamental who is espoused to a single tradition.

    This is an interesting way to sum up the series, but I don’t think I would say it’s a step backwards. You sell yourself short in that way.

    Reply

  2. Thanks Tony,
    I wasnt saying that my proposition was a step backwards. I was metaphorically taking a step back from the edge of dogmatism, if you will. I may have poorly worded my intent, however. My intent was to show that I am not dogmatic about the conjecture of my first two posts. They were simply a way of synthesizing the information in a way that led me to the practical solution I espoused in this final post.

    Reply

  3. “my goal is to acknowledge that mankind has always sought to better understand and relate to a God that is far beyond his reach.”

    Have you ever considered if we did not think of “God” AS “far beyond our reach”, it might be a bit easier for us to understand?

    Once I negate and limit my cognitive capacity TO understand, I won’t, that’s for sure. Like poking my eyes out, ensures I’ll be blind.

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  4. Sue,
    first of all thank you for your thoughts. I think that you have brought up a very valid perspective. I do believe that there is value in searching for a God for which we can cognatively behold. That said, if we limit God to our perception we are sure to have a God no more transcendant than ourselves. What makes God a God is that “he” is not man. If God does not transcend our imaginations, he is not worthy of being sought after.

    As far as limiting cognitive capacity, I would argue that perphaps this is simply a wrong approach. Affirming that the entirety of God is beyond my grasp and focusing on my inability to grasp God are two very differant things. Affirming the vastness of God spurs on a passion to find more. Focusing on my own insufficiancies discourages me from taking the journey.

    One final thought in relation to your response. Affirming the otherness of God is inherantly an act in abstractitude. It is quite difficult to affirm a God that is beyond human linguistic definitions. This is why I believe that it is not a neccesity for all. For some, affirming the otherness of God will be liberating. These of course are esoteric thinkers. However, for the echsoteric thinker, it is quite helpful and enlightening to affirm a God for which one can relate. Neither is wrong, in my opinion. For, while it is true that God is far more than say the human conception of love, “he” must also encompass that conception. It is like saying God is love and more than love. Please understand that I am not affirming an unknowable God. I am simply expressing a heartfelf belief that God must be more.

    Reply

  5. Smiling!

    What if I use the word “Life” instead of the word “God”?

    What if I use the term “Unified Quantum Field” instead of the word “God”?

    Don’t all 2 words or phrases mean basically the same thing? All That Is?

    And what could be more then “All That Is”?

    If we desire TO Understand, then it is our ability to add one idea to another without creating any conflicts or contradictions in the process, that counts. I understand how it is all rather abstract but that’s sense for us!

    From my view, our religious institutions are simply forms expressing our understanding of Creation and our place in it. They are simply like any other institution. They are ‘things’. Like buildings, giving form to an urge or an idea.

    Much becomes clear if and when we start asking questions. Like what’s “All That Is” got to be jealous OF? That certainly doesn’t make any sense. What ELSE is there besides “All That Is”?

    How about an Absolute missing in absoluteness? Or a limited unlimited? Could I sell you on the idea of an impotent Omnipotence?

    Sound silly, don’t they?

    But it is what most of us have been taught to believe. A “God” that is able to embrace *this* but not *that*. Somehow all powerful everywhere ELSE in the Universe but not *here*.

    Maybe we’ve not found what we have been seeking, because we do not know what to look for?

    Since All That Is, is, All That Is, I suppose I could just look anywhere, if I knew what to look FOR.

    Reply

  6. Sue,

    I fear that my words have conveyed an interventionist perspective on God. This could not be farther from my intentions. I agree completely that God can be found in everything. If God is truly a transcendant essence than it only remains that God is in everything. I do believe that God can be switched with life. However, I feel that to refrain God to simply that definition would be undermining the nature of transcendance. You said,

    “If we desire TO Understand, then it is our ability to add one idea to another without creating any conflicts or contradictions ”

    I feel as though you have not gone far enough. For surely if God is all that exists than God must conflict with our human definitions. The very nature of transcendance (all that is) begs that we cannot define it. As far as knowing where to look, I would challenge that it is not where but how. To see without seeing is the challenge of searching after God. To find God it will take all of our senses and then it will take more.

    Reply

  7. Eck said:

    “Whoever knows only one religion is unlikely to understand what religion is about.”

    I would argue that one must fully embrace one religion to understand what that religion is all about. Otherwise one approaches it not from a position of faith in order to experience it but as an observer trying to assimilate it.

    Reply

  8. Reed,

    I think that you are missing the point of using that quote. What I was trying to show is that experience of God through divine revelation should be cumulative. We don’t have to understand “what” a religion is all about to gain from the revelation that they have received. You can better understand God, than you do right now, by simply sitting down and listening to a Muslim share with you what God has revealed to them. My point was that it is the experience not the tradition that is founded in divine origin.

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  9. I understand why you used the quote, I just simply disagree.

    If you approache the conversation with a predefined notion of what religion “really is” than it’s unavoidable that you’ll find elements in every faith system that correspond to your picture. However, most people within those faith systems would probably disagree with your picture, precisely because they are inside of it looking out instead of outside of looking in.

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  10. Excellent post Jeremy!

    Your interaction with the venerable Sue Edwards above brought several very different cultural references to mind. The first is Johnny Cash’s sanctification of the song “Personal Jesus” on his American IV album. That song can be construed to represent the position of a particular strain of Evangelical Christianity which emphasizes the “Jesus (and therefore God) is my very best friend” motif that is partially based on the final chapters of the Gospel of John (or a misconstrual of the same). Another song that comes to mind is the youtube sensation: “Jesus is a Friend of Mine.” On the other hand, another, arguably more venerable, Christian tradition agrees more with your position, Jeremy, that our understanding of God is severely limited by his infiniteness and our finiteness. This tradition is neatly summed in a brilliant aphorism of St. Augustine: “Si comprehendis non est Deus” or “If you understand him, he is not God.”

    Reply

  11. “For surely if God is all that exists than God must conflict with our human definitions”

    A conflicted God?

    Or maybe it’s the other way around? Human definitions in conflict with God, rather then God in conflict with human definitions. Like I gave examples of: a limited unlimited, an impotent omnipotence, etc.

    To cite a fundamental Principle and contradict it at the same time is a counterproductive thing to do if Understanding is my goal. Understanding requires ADDing ideas, not subtracting. Whole = Sum of ALL the parts, not just selective ones.

    Before I can ever understand, there must be a genuine desire TO understand. Once I’ve said “I can’t”, it’s doubtful I ever will. One of the “requirements” of ‘Blind” faith is that we live that faith, blind. Once Understanding sinks in, we’re not Blind anymore. We cannot Value Understanding and being Blind at the same time.

    It helps if we identify our actual “beliefs”, for a “belief” in ‘Jesus’, is not the same as a “belief” in ‘Christ’. Saying that we believe in a Universal Brotherhood is a lot different then claiming to be a member of it.

    Maybe it would help us if we understood that ‘God’ loves ALL Life, where we ONLY love parts of it, the ‘good’ parts?

    Every moment of Life is a Present. A Gift. No matter whether we spend that moment in misery or bliss. Like Solomon said, “Straight stick, crooked stick, a stick is still a stick.”

    Maybe our ideas of God aren’t OF God at all? Maybe they are simply projections of our own limitations, you know, the…’making of god in our own image’?

    For the perspective of All That Is, is one of Unity and Whole-ness, for it would be a contradiction if it wasn’t. There is only ‘One’ Absolute. There is only ‘One’ Eternity, ‘One’ Infinity’, ‘One’ Always.

    Always embraces all ways, is All inclusive.

    Which indicates that it is our defining that is *off* and in *conflict* with God and…not the other way around.

    Reply

  12. Sue,

    I feel like you are confusing topics and connecting things that aren’t connected to each other, at least not in any rational argument. These things you mention are related, sure, but not interdependent in the way you outline.

    Your opening quote for instance:

    “For surely if God is all that exists than God must conflict with our human definitions”

    I don’t read that and think, “A conflicted God?” Try it this way, switch some of the words out.

    “For surely if I exist, I must conflict with a tadpoles definition of me.”

    That doesn’t make me conflicted, it simply states that a tadpole has no ability to full comprehend me, an enormous and much more complicated thing than him. But, my existence is not affected by another ‘being’s’ perception of me. It certainly does not make me conflicted that something so much lower than me does not understand me fully.

    All that quote is admitting is that we are human and if God exists, he exists far beyond the reach and scope of human understanding. Sure, a tadpole can observe me or even my affects on his environment, but he is a simpler creature without the ability to know what I am as a human being.

    Same with God, only exponentially more-so.

    I think it is a necessary humility to admit that a human, even a group of well-learned humans, could never really define or understand or grasp, even for a moment, something as big as God.

    You wrote: “Maybe our ideas of God aren’t OF God at all? Maybe they are simply projections of our own limitations, you know, the…’making of god in our own image’?”

    I agree with that. Our ideas ‘of’ God are not OF God, they are our ideas.

    However, I completely disagree with your idea of Understanding. You wrote: “Understanding requires ADDing ideas, not subtracting. Whole = Sum of ALL the parts, not just selective ones.”

    Well, we understood for a long time that the earth as flat. Our understanding about the shape of the earth has grown not because we just added ideas to that one, but because we got rid of that idea when it became apparent we were wrong. We replaced that idea with a better one. The earth is round, and the idea that the earth is flat has been removed.

    Understanding is just as much ADDING good ideas as REMOVING outdated or disproven ideas. Otherwise, when it comes to God, well, people have believed in all kinds of God-sanctioned atrocities. Do we just add to those ideas? or do we remove them from the picture since, now, we can see how they don’t make sense in with the overall picture of God?

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  13. It’s not *my* responsibility that *your* mind works in *conflicting* patterns. It is merely an example of the kind of mental patterns that the world teaches, that I was bringing up.

    Start at the FUNDAMENTAL “Principal” of ABSOLUTE and start erasing ALL “contaminating” ideas that are in DENIAL of that ABSOLUTE. It means “purifying” our consciousness and awareness of all concepts that are in denial and contradiction to the ABSOLUTE level of Reality.

    As in, “God” is all powerful everywhere ELSE in Creation, EXCEPT for around *here*.

    “All That Is” except for this and this and that” is a really ~dumb~ idea. It cannot be Integrated, for the ideas themselves are in conflict. Which is what I was bringing up in relation to a LOT of cock-a-mammy ideas that have been claimed as being “of God”. If it’s an idea expressing ANY kind of separation or exclusion, it is man-made nonsense and not of any kind of “Spiritual reality”.

    It really isn’t *wise* to accept statements and claims of “I don’t know”, as any sort of authority ON Knowing. All “I don’t know” and “I can’t understand” mean, are expressions of LACKS, not *knowing*, indicating ability TO understand is limited, not possibilities FOR being Understood.

    Current “beliefs” are contaminated with *BS* left over in the form of “taboos”, “fetishes” and “superstitions” from ancient times, reflecting Humanity’s understanding from a time we were all a bunch of ragtag nomads. These ideas need to be cleared out and cleaned out before any real kind of “Understanding” can sink in.

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  14. Reed,

    I am still not sure that you are getting my thesis. My point is that “religion” in its institutional or traditional sense is a human construct, used to define and divine experience. If you disagree, then please tell me how one determines which religious institutions are divinely originated and which ones are not? Ultimately, your answer will be determined by your experiance of God. However, since it is an inherent quality of a divine experience that it transcends human definitions, it becomes quite impossible for you to use the source of your experience to measure the divinity of others.

    I agree that one must be within a tradition to understand fully the linguistic structure that is being used to define a transcendant experience. However, it is not a neccessity for one to be within a tradition to have their personal understanding of the divine added to by the experience of the divine found in that tradition.

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  15. Let me see if I get this right…

    You want to understand transcendence from a mind pattern of polarity and duality. And instead of adjusting your thinking, it’s easier simply to say it “can’t be thought out”.

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  16. Wow, Sue, it seems you’ve changed totally your mind. And, interestingly, I agree with the essence of this newer response.

    Here’s why:

    You said earlier: “Understanding requires ADDing ideas, not subtracting. Whole = Sum of ALL the parts, not just selective ones.”

    And now you say: “Current “beliefs” are contaminated with *BS* left over in the form of “taboos”, “fetishes” and “superstitions” from ancient times, reflecting Humanity’s understanding from a time we were all a bunch of ragtag nomads. These ideas need to be cleared out and cleaned out before any real kind of “Understanding” can sink in.”

    Now that second bit is pretty much what I was saying. We need to select the ideas that ring true and stand to reason, and remove the leftover *BS*, as you so eloquently put it, like taboos and superstitions. (Not sure how fetishes works into the equation, but meh… I’ll leave that one alone.)

    It follows naturally, then, that the BS to which you refer are all the old ideas that people used to believe in as normative and right. But, now that we see through those ideas, we must get past them, remove them… oh hold on.

    Maybe if I use some condescending ALL CAPS, you’ll GET what I MEAN. 🙂

    We have to remove old ideas that we KNOW are WRONG (like taboos and superstitions, again, as you point out) in order to move into better UNDERSTANDING.

    That’s subtracting, and I agree with you on that point. But it completely CONFLICTS with your previous point about UNDERSTANDING requiring that we only ADD, and never SUBTRACT.

    You make my point for me, so thank you.

    Reply

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